Little-Known Military Brigades and Armed Groups in Yemen: A Series
This series maps the activity of little-known military brigades and armed groups proliferating throughout the conflict in Yemen. Mapping these actors has become relevant for understanding future trajectories of violence in Yemen as some of them have developed significant combat capabilities with shifting allegiances. While some follow their own interests, others have clear allegiances to the internationally recognized government or the Southern Transitional Council. As with actors in other conflict scenarios, such allegiances are, however, never set in stone. Rather, allegiances are a fluid process, shifting due to changes of outside circumstances (e.g. the behavior of a patron) or battlefield victories. In order to be better prepared for these changes, this series maps the activity of such military brigades and armed groups — some of them have become relevant already, while others may see their turn towards increased relevance in the future.
This piece provides a deep dive into an actor that is not yet covered in much detail by traditional media; as such, it draws on OSINT, including new media sources, more than traditional ACLED analyses. Some of these sources are not used in ACLED’s data collection, yet the information garnered from them for this piece has been either triangulated or presented with the appropriate caveats.
Despite signing a deal in December 2020 on an accelerated mechanism for the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, the underlying tensions between the Hadi government and Southern Transitional Council remain unresolved. The provisions of the deal led to the formation of a power-sharing cabinet, the first tangible step since the Saudi-brokered agreement had initially been signed in November 2019. The establishment of the unity cabinet was followed by the return of the government to Aden city — its temporary capital in Yemen since the Houthis took control of Sanaa — for the first time since violent clashes erupted between the tenuous partners in the southern port city in the summer of 2019.
It was hoped that the rapprochement between the parties signaled a more stable period in the south of the country, which had experienced months of fierce clashes between rival military forces, assassinations, and targeted attacks. However, on 30 December 2020, the cabinet was welcomed back to the city by a series of missile attacks that struck Aden airport just as the cabinet members were disembarking. The ministers were all unharmed, but as many as 28 people were killed and more than 100 wounded, among them journalists, airport workers, civilians, and military and security personnel. The attack revealed the volatile security situation that is still evident in the city amid a fractured and highly politicized atmosphere.
According to analyst Hussam Radman, Aden Security, and its charismatic former leader, Shallal Ali Shaya, are inextricably linked with the survival of the government ministers. Shaya’s popularity is the reason why masses of people gathered to greet him as he arrived to Aden on the same plane. As a result, the airplane had to land at another gate away from the gate where the missiles struck (Radman, 19 January 2021). This piece takes a closer look at the composition and role of Aden Security.
Aden Security is a quasi-police force that is advancing the goals of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Aden. It has become prominent under its commander Shallal Ali Shaya, who shaped the evolution of the force up until January 2021. Since the beginning of January, Shaya took a step back (at least publicly) and the command was handed over to Mutahar Ali Naji Al Shuaibi (Aden Police, 3 January 2021). Abu Bakir Jaber remains deputy director (Aden Police, 31 December 2020).
Aden Security is like other governorate-organized security directorates in that it is formally part of the Ministry of Interior and assumes the role of a MoI-affiliated police force in Aden governorate. It consists of six battalions and has around 5,000-6,000 members, who come almost exclusively from Ad Dali province (Abaad, 11 August 2019). The emergency support forces, commanded by Muhammad Hussein al Khali, are part of Aden Security (Aden Police, 28 December 2020), as is the Counter Terrorism Unit, led by Yusran Al Maqtari (Medium, 26 May 2019; Al Khabar Al Yemeni, 5 January 2021).
In December 2015, President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi appointed Shallal Ali Shaya, a commander in the Southern Resistance, as a new director for Aden Security (Sky News, 7 December 2015; Medium, 26 May 2019), precipitating the future trajectory of Aden Security into becoming a pro-STC force. Shaya, who was born in Al Jalilah near Ad Dali city and whose family hails from the Al Shaeri area nearby, left his imprint on the composition of the force (Aden Time, 9 December 2015). Shaya draws his power base from networks he established during his early tenure as commander in 2016-2017. The new commander recruited new members, almost all from Ad Dali, into his force. Many received training in Aden and Ad Dali. Together with Aydarus Al Zubaydi, who was appointed governor at the same time, and the material and financial support of the United Arab Emirates, Shaya secured Aden in 2016-2017 against recurrent Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attacks (for more on AQAP, see this recent piece by ACLED). Notably, in 2016, the affiliated Counter Terrorism Unit is reported to have conducted 130 raids, leading to the arrest of 104 AQAP and Islamic State in Yemen members (Medium, 26 May 2019; Aden Lang, 24 May 2017).
Aden Security transformed into a pro-STC force hand in hand with the STC gaining momentum in southern Yemen. Until August 2019, when the STC expelled pro-Hadi forces from Aden, Shaya maintained a level of cooperation with the Minister of Interior. This helped improve security in Aden during 2018-2019. Shaya, however, has been an activist for southern secession for a long time (Foreign Policy, 13 March 2013; Aden Time 9 December 2015). It was thus not a surprise that he started to express public allegiance to the STC in tandem with the STC gaining prominence. As a result, during the events of August 2019, Shaya participated in rallies supporting STC policies (Twitter, 10 August 2019, Twitter 14 August 2019).
As part of a July 2020 amendment to the Riyadh Agreement — originally signed in November 2019 under the auspices of Saudi Arabia in order to resolve the conflict in southern Yemen — Shaya was due to be appointed military attaché to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Appointing political opponents to posts in foreign countries is a preferred strategy to send them into exile. Shaya’s appointment was reminiscent of Ahmed Ali Saleh’s exile by means of being appointed Yemeni ambassador to the UAE in 2013. Shaya refused the appointment. Ahmed Muhammad Al Hamidi was due to become director of Aden Security in tandem with Ahmed Lamlas becoming the new Aden governor (STC Aden, 29 July 2020). Unlike Lamlas (for more on Lamlas, see this ACLED piece on the Asifah Brigade), Al Hamidi, who had been head of the Hadramawt security since 2002, was not able to assume his role as newly appointed commander of Aden Security. His return to Aden was reportedly barred by higher ups. The decision had to do with Riyadh Agreement proceedings, as reported by Abubakr Hussein Jabr (Al Ayyam, 11 November 2020).
At the same time, Shaya, who was in de facto exile in Saudi Arabia and the UAE since March 2020, continued to be Aden Security commander (Al Wattan, 13 September 2020). Only with the reshuffling of commanding posts, and the return of the government to Aden in late December 2020, did Shaya come back from exile in the Gulf to the interim capital. Prior to that, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE had opposed his return to Aden (Al Masdar, 13 March 2020; Al Jazeera, 12 March 2020).
With the most recent breakthrough in December 2020 in negotiations between the STC and the internationally recognized government to implement the Riyadh Agreement, the conflict in the South seems to have calmed down for now. Until the recent deal, several amendments in 2020 had been unsuccessfully implemented. However, with the December amendment, the STC agreed to join a newly constituted pro-Hadi government in exchange for allowing the government to move back into Aden, the interim capital. As noted, the return of the government to Aden was overshadowed by a flurry of ballistic missiles fired at Aden International Airport. Still, the government was able to assume its functions thereafter. Simultaneously, the STC and the internationally recognized government redeployed its forces away from the Abyan frontlines, which froze the clashes entirely (see figure below).
Another point foreseen in the Riyadh Agreement — the restructuring and redeployment of security units, including Aden Security — was also partly implemented. On 3 January 2021, Shallal Ali Shaya was replaced by Mutahar Ali Naji Shuaibi as head of Aden Security.
Shuaibi, the new commander, seems to have been a compromise candidate acceptable to both parties. According to Al Masdar, his appointment, however, seems to favor the interests of the STC, rather than of the pro-Hadi groups, as Shuaibi comes from Ad Dali governorate like Shaya (Al Masdar, 2 January 2021). Moreover, in the past there have been reports of Aden Security, the Asifah Brigade, and the Security Belt Forces co-operating under the same central command (Freeposts, 30 October 2019). The Aden Security spokesperson has in the past also spoken on behalf of the Security Belt Forces (Yemen Press Agency, 28 August 2019; Yemenat, 28 August 2019). How this nexus has been affected by the December 2020 amendments to the Riyadh Agreement — and the appointment of Shuaibi as commander of Aden security — is yet to be seen.
Shuaibi’s appointment also has some interesting implications for intra-STC politics. It means that someone from Ad Dali province remains in control of Aden Security. This could be an indication of the influence of STC president Aidarus Al Zubaydi in the appointment of influential commanders, as well as the make-up of the security administration. Zubaydi is himself from Ad Dali and a security administration which is predominantly from the same governorate may be more likely to follow a leader from the same governorate.
As such, as Aden Security and other groups with origins in Ad Dali consolidate control over Aden, tensions could arise between Aden Security and the city’s residents and other local armed groups, who might perceive these forces as external forces imposed on them. Few pro-STC soldiers in fact hail from Aden, nor do its leaders, with the notable exception of its Vice President Hani bin Braik (ACLED, 13 August 2020).
Throughout the past two years, Aden Security has been involved in several clashes with other pro-STC forces over control of critical infrastructure. As well, there were clashes over control of security camps, land ownership, and Aden ports. Control of ports is an important source of power and revenue through levying customs and seizing illegal shipments. Heavy taxes, insurance costs, and chaos at the Aden commercial port, the biggest port in Yemen, even led some ships to unload their cargo at Salalah port in Oman instead (Al Araby, 19 October 2020; Al Jazeera, 19 November 2020). While the oil port in Little Aden is at time of writing controlled by the pro-STC Support and Reinforcement Brigades, branches of Aden Security are in charge of guarding Aden’s commercial port in Al Mualla (for more on the Support and Reinforcement Brigades, see an earlier installment in this ACLED series).
Maintaining control of Aden’s commercial port could potentially lead to frictions with other pro-STC Forces (Facebook, 25 September 2019; Twitter 10 November 2020). In fact, clashes between the pro-STC Aden Security and the pro-STC Facilities Protection Force erupted in November 2019 after the Facilities Protection Force tried to take control of a different port, the fishing port (for more on the Facilities Protection Force, see an earlier installment in this ACLED series) (El Yamn El Araby, 16 November 2020). This was followed by clashes in January 2020, when Aden Security tried to take control of the Center for Immigration and Passports (Motabaat, 29 January 2020; Crater Sky, 28 January 2020) (see figure below).
Emblematic of Shaya’s influential role, in December 2020, Dayem, another commander in Aden Security refused the orders of Governor Ahmed Lamlas to hand over the Al Nasr military camp to the STC-affiliated 3rd brigade of the Support and Reinforcement Brigades led by Nabil Al Mashushi. Instead, Dayem requested a direct order from Shaya. Amid the heightened tensions that followed the exchange, an explosion reportedly targeted a military vehicle belonging to the SRB at Caltex roundabout. The two units had been sharing the camp in recent years, but the SRB had recently requested it become their main base, which Aden Security had refused. To resolve the situation, the STC president Aidarus Al Zubaidi reportedly ordered Dayem to hand over the camp (Al Masdar, 12 December 2020).
Throughout the years, and especially during a period of heightened importance throughout 2020, Aden Security forces are reported to have been involved in physical violence over land ownership issues (Aden Al Ghad, 13 October 2020). In December 2020, the group clashed with Security Belt Forces over the control of Abdulaziz neighborhood (Al Masdar 27 December 2020). On multiple occasions, Aden Security was involved in looting, the lawful and unlawful destruction of property (Al Masdar, 22 November 2020), and violence against civilians (Al Masdar, 22 Juni 2020). Notably, the Counter Terrorism Unit led by Yusran Al Maqtari, a subgroup within Aden Security, are accused of several human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and torture (Abaad, 11 August 2019; HRW, 12 December 2019; Middle East Eye, 13 March 2019).
The prominence of Aden Security in the southern port city has paralleled that of the STC. This is unsurprising given the identity of the group’s commander and close ties with the leadership of the STC. How closely the two continue to track together will likely be indicative of the broader developments in the political sphere and the security situation in the city.
The replacement of Shaya as Aden Security commander was one of the initial steps in the Riyadh Agreement, though its implementation has been emblematic of the whole process. The inability of his successor, Al Hamidi, to assume the role of commander highlights the tenuous nature of the process and the complex local political dynamics that have hampered every step of the process. It remains to be seen whether the group’s role will shift under Al Shuaibi, though so far there are no indications that its responsibilities have changed in his first months in charge, with Aden Security still operating in the interest of the STC as a police, port protection, and counter-terrorism force in the city — sometimes overstepping its boundaries as illustrated above.
One of the next stages in the Riyadh Agreement is the reorganization of the security forces under the Ministry of Interior. Any attempts to reduce the role of Aden Security or appoint new officers from outside the current Ad Dali and STC-affiliated ranks will likely face the same pushback that scuppered Al Hamidi’s command. Top-down efforts to enforce change at a local level have faced widespread resistance, while targeted attacks on military and security figures have increased, especially since the Aden Airport attack, as groups seek to create instability in the city and spoil the agreement.
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